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David Bowie in ‘The Labyrinth’
David Bowie in ‘The Labyrinth’via YouTube.com

David Bowie’s most revolutionary moments in film

You remind me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power. What power? The power of voodoo. Who do? You do. Do what? Remind me of the babe.

The death of David Bowie has been particularly tough to accept because his body of work was so timeless and it’s impossible to imagine a world without him. The perpetual outsider made everything effortlessly cool, and to his fans – essentially everyone – that meant embracing your inner weirdness and feeling free to express yourself. It feels as if he was never supposed to die, and through his art he never will.

Before Bowie’s acting career took off, his music already possessed a rich cinematic quality. In character, he wrote lyrics that painted clear images for the imagination, and his albums sounded like they were recorded in widescreen. As an inimitable style icon, he was understandably beloved by film directors lucky enough to find a pop icon you could believe was sent to Earth from an unspeakably generous planet. 

Whether as a sensual alien, Goblin King, or just the most innovative musician of the past half-century, Bowie was a malleable actor whose presence onscreen felt both magical and groundbreaking. Here are his ten most revolutionary roles:

JARETH THE GOBLIN KING IN LABYRINTH (1986)

Bowie’s shape-shifting talents came to the fore as Jareth the Goblin King, a sultry baddie who could be a sneaky owl or long-haired master of Jim Henson’s puppets depending on his mood. When Jareth kidnaps young Jennifer Connelly’s brother, he gives her 13 hours to complete a Labyrinth that makes cryptic crosswords seem a doddle in comparison; if not, she will never be able to look at another Goblin King again without feeling guilty. Bowie, though, is the indisputable star, whose voice is tailor-made for a family movie villain, and his subversive sexiness bulges through some tight clothing. When Connelly is taunted by Jareth on the stairs, she should be terrified, but you can tell she’s secretly psyched to be in a Bowie music video.

HIMSELF IN CHRISTIANE F. (1981)

Lead character Christiane Felscherinow, like all 12-year-olds in the 80s, is a die-hard Bowie fan, and his music – he wrote and recorded the soundtrack – permeates throughout a film of immense sorrow. Songs like “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” remind us how Bowie helped people at their lowest. While not all will experience the dramatic swings of Christiane F., we can appreciate the raw power of his music as a coping mechanism. The best example is when Christiane sees Bowie at a concert. He does “Station to Station” to a crowd gone wild, but then a camera angle gives Christiane the impression that he’s singing the lyrics directly to her. And that’s the effect of Bowie – his music made a personal connection with all within hearing distance.

ANDY WARHOL IN BASQUIAT (1996)

If Andy Warhol could have picked someone to play him in a film, top of his wishlist would surely have been Bowie, who already paid tribute with the 1971 track “Andy Warhol”. For the role, Bowie went a bit Daniel Day-Lewis by borrowing Warhol’s actual wig (more a fluffy white hat), glasses and leather jacket, and he quietly swaggers with the natural authority of how a hugely influential artist does everyday activities. The film depicts Warhol as an elusive celebrity, the kind of person you can’t read but desperately want to impress – all qualities that fit Bowie like a suit he possibly borrowed from Warhol’s wardrobe.

THOMAS JEROME NEWTON IN THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I’m British and I have a passport,” Bowie says in his major acting debut, leaving off the minor detail that he’s visiting Earth to bring water back to his intergalactic home. Under the guidance of director Nicolas Roeg, Bowie is already bona fide dramatic actor, mining the tragically human and non-human qualities of his character. Given that Bowie already resembled a fashionable extra-terrestrial off a movie set, a sense of autobiography surrounds his performance, as if we’re watching someone – whether an alien or pop star – too good for our planet, but unable to resist its temptations. No one else could have played this role.

PONTIOUS PILATE IN THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

When Willem Dafoe’s Jesus Christ is in quite a pickle, the sight of David Bowie approaching isn’t quite as comforting as it sounds. Martin Scorsese knew what he was doing when he cast the singer as Pontious Pilate, the guy who tells Jesus he’s too dangerous to keep alive because he challenges the norm. With Bowie, you half-expect a flamboyant twist or a poetry recital, but instead he’s calm and quietly threatening: “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things,” he says, “we don’t want them changed.” Even the son of God is taken aback by Bowie’s words.

PHILLIP JEFFRIES IN TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks movie prequel was supposed to answer unexplained mysteries from the TV series, but unveiled more loose ends – especially when David Bowie runs into Agent Cooper’s workplace, is about to explain the secrets of BOB, but then disappears into thin air. Ah, so close. The casting of Bowie is no novelty, though. In a room where everyone’s slick and suited like Kyle MacLachlan, Bowie is the eccentrically dressed colleague in a Hawaiian shirt who has been reported missing for years, not just from the office, but from this dimension. As an oddity from another planet, Bowie’s been prepped since his early singles.

NIKOLA TESLA IN THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Christopher Nolan’s intricate mystery is wholly reliant upon a far-fetched sci-fi twist jumping out of nowhere, and understandably a real-life magician like David Bowie is required to save the giant plot holes. While the stage showmen of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman rely on sleight of hand, Bowie parades supernatural energy and seems to be built out of electricity; as Tesla, a genius who offhandedly invents teleportation, he is again someone audiences automatically accept is objectively superior to the average human. And in a film that often takes itself too seriously, Bowie has the most fun of the lot, lobbing in an accent you’ll be impersonating afterwards.

VENDICE PARTNERS IN ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986)

A box office failure upon release, Absolute Beginners should be in retrospect thanked for the hit single of the same name, and for pointing the spotlight on Bowie as a glam Gene Kelly when he sings “That’s Motivation” (below). Clearly having a blast, Bowie plays a seductive adman who will literally sing the praises of the corporate world (while tapdancing on a giant, spinning globe because why not?). The sequence is funny, trashy and a reminder that Bowie was game for experimentation – even if it involved climbing a model of Mount Everest that looks stolen from a mini-golf course.

JOHN BLAYLOCK IN THE HUNGER (1983)

Susan Sarandon revealed she and David Bowie had a secret affair during the production of Tony Scott’s erotic vampire horror, and it’s more than believable given the steaminess of Bowie’s neck-biter (before the character wears the prosthetics). As with The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie is the supernatural creature suffering from the everyday pain of being a human when he unexplainably starts ageing – not what you’d expect from someone who in the same year released “Let’s Dance. To perfect the gravelly voice, he reportedly spent every night at George Washington Bridge yelling punk songs at the top of his voice – hopefully a bootleg will surface.

JACK CELLIERS IN MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE (1983)

Bruised and beaten in a Japanese POW camp, the character of Jack Celliers riffs upon Bowie’s queer status. In a brutal WWII environment, Bowie is pushed around, called a “soldier’s soldier”, and is a romantic interest from another male prisoner. When it comes to the film’s most famous scene (used on some DVD covers) the casting makes extra sense. It takes a rare kind of actor (hint: Bowie) to nail such a dramatic role, break the fourth role in the casting, and find poignancy in devouring on flowers as a snack.